Friday, May 22, 2009

Walking Through Echoes Of The Past

There will be quite a bit of metaphorical reference in this one. Suspend your disbelief for a bit and walk with me on this incredible journey.


The purpose of the trip was to trace my family's history and heritage back as far as I could, to photograph and document the lands and places that they existed in, to reach back through time and history and make a connection that all my living family and our children's children could keep; so that our past will never be lost again. It's important to know where we came from.

Paris was en route, and it was so lovely... it was a beautiful dream. Scotland was an entirely different world.

We arrived late in the night and traveled by bus from the airport into the dark city. We might have been in a time traveling vehicle, as it seemed to be an anachronism; the only thing from this century that we could see in the world around us. Old stone walls and buildings, dim street lamps, narrow lanes and round-abouts, a winding twisting ride that eventually brought us to the center of the city, at the feet of an enormous fortress that loomed over us and glowed like a beacon in the blackness; Edinburgh Castle.

Morning's light found us in our bed and breakfast; a large old stone house, kept by a very kind couple. The city morphed into a slightly more modern machine during the day. We were served (every morning for the duration of the trip), a "Full Scottish Breakfast" which consists of sausage, an enormous slab of ham, eggs, cut tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, red beans, cereal/porridge, fruit, toast (more toast?), and haggis & black pudding (if we were so inclined, and we were not), with coffee, juice, and tea. It is delicious, it is monstrously huge, it is serious protein, and a heart attack on a plate. We loved it!

We got our car after breakfast... the steering wheel is on the right side (passenger side in the states) of the car. It was a standard transmission; 5 speed, so fifth gear and reverse are next to the drivers left knee. I did all the driving. It was a bit terrifying unnerving, getting back to the B&B from the rental car place, where I needed to gather my wits before driving off all over the country. Mr. Black was an excellent co-pilot. I don't know how I'd have made it around without his patience and assistance. I did get the hang of it, after the second day, and it became fun then!
Our goals in focus, maps and plans at the ready, we took off to delve back hundreds and hundreds of years into the history of my forebears.

Our first priority was Scone Palace, where a special tribute to the Royal Stewart family was being performed. I must take a moment to thank Miss Pamela Lawrence from Scone Palace, without whose invaluable aide, we'd have had a much more difficult time. She has earned a sainthood from us for her kindness and extremely helpful advice.
Scone Palace is where the Kings of Scotland were crowned, at a little stone seat (the Stone of Destiny) in front of a tiny chapel. The chapel and the Stone of Destiny (or rather, a replica of it), are still there.

I sat on the stone, in the place where four of my great-grandfathers were crowned Kings of Scotland, and it was a humbling, reverent experience. I gazed out over the castle grounds and at the walls of the castle; where they looked, where they walked, where they stayed briefly. My feet rested on the ground that they stood on. Time began to fade then, and with every breath the shadows clouding the centuries between us evaporated like the Scottish fog burning off in the light of day.

The air in Scotland is cool and damp, and strange as it may seem, it is invigorating. We were both filled with an excited energy that ignited a love in us for this country and its people that will never fade. The fog and rain come and go as do the tides that wash up on the shores there. The sun plays hide and seek, and just when you think it's gone, it dances out gloriously scintillating and colors the air with rainbows.

I felt the thickness of time around me; like it hadn't gone anywhere at all, it just kept happening and filling space around the land, without end. Every place that we went and every step that I took felt like walking through ages where there was no barrier to separate them from each other and from me as I made my way in and through those moments.

We visited some new friends in Peebles and had a wonderful, albeit much too brief, time with them. They showed us Melrose Abbey, where the heart of King Robert the Bruce is buried. He told his men when he died, to carry his heart to the holy land as they joined the crusades and to bury it there in the holy temple, but the quest failed and his men brought his heart back to Scotland and there it lies now, in the quiet green ground under the towering ruins of Melrose Abbey. I knelt at the monument over my great-grandfathers heart, and 18 generations & 680 years fell away like leaves in the fall. My hands on the monument, I thought of the heart that lay beneath it, and of the man to whom it belongs. My heart pushes his blood through my body. I exist because he did. I breathed in the air around me as well as the endless moment, suspended as it was, in time.

Melrose Abbey is amazing, it is beautiful, and it is enormous; I tried to imagine what it looked like before it was destroyed by humanity and the ages. It is sacred to me for the simple reason that it holds such a precious part of my ancestry.

From Melrose, we went on to Flodden Field. Our friends told us, Scarlett, it is but a field... in the middle of nowhere... really, it's just a field. I know, I said with a smile, but I have to go, it's part of the journey. Another of my great-grandfathers died in battle there; Duncan Campbell. I must go. And we went.

Flodden Field is in England. Crossing the Scottish and English border is much like crossing a state line in the US. There's a small sign, and by small I mean maybe 3 feet by 4 feet. 'You are now entering England'. Flodden Field, site of the Battle of Flodden, is tucked away down an old winding country dirt road, one that twists and bends past farms and meadows and the odd fence. There is a tiny old country church at the base of the hill. At the top of the hill is a concrete Celtic cross, probably about 6 feet tall, maybe a little more. We parked and walked through a narrow wooden gate to the stairs that lead up to the top of the hill.

It is a field, and then it is absolutely not at all. Standing there in the clean, quiet country breeze, we could see all the world around us, and the dirt and grass at our feet. We could feel the peace that is there now, blanketing the sounds of battle that seem to echo just out of reach... the shouts of men, the clang of armour and weapons, the cries of desperation... how much blood spilled into that soil? The blood of 12,000 men; one of them another reason that I am alive and was standing where he had fallen. I wondered what he might have thought on his last day, marching across that land, wondering if he would live or die. How powerful that must have been... every sense heightened, every emotion racing through every fiber of his being at it's utmost capacity... and then it was lost, all of it, and he was gone.
The loss of life there and the ensuing peace is tangible. It can be felt through the body, mind, and soul, it can be sensed in the air and on the wind. I will never, ever forget what it felt like to be there.

We visited Stirling Castle, which is now a tourist stop overlooking Bannockburn Field, where a larger war was fought by my great-grandfather King Robert the Bruce, and where, just on the other side of the field, the Wallace monument looks on the castle. Stirling is a fortress, just like Edinburgh Castle. High on a hill, almost impenetrable... they really knew how to build them back then. It is the jewel of the city, rising above it all. It is very well kept up, and has seen changes over the centuries since my grandfathers walked through its halls.

Edinburgh Castle is much the same as Stirling; so very old a structure but one that is updated and hosts throngs of sightseers every day. There are hints and remnants of my family's history here and there; emblems of their coats of arms color the glass in the windows, and paintings of those arms adorn some of the walls. It is incredible to walk past the heavily guarded display of the crown, the kings sword, and the (possibly) real Stone of Destiny that are safely secured under glass and watchful eye. They are stunning, breathtaking in their strength, size, and grandeur. These are pretty artifacts in my mind, not a soul binding connection to the men that used them, and that connection is what I was after on this sojourn.

I found the most significant connection at Dunfermline Abbey. King Robert the Bruce's heart is buried in Melrose, but his body is buried at Dunfermline. It is also the place where my favorite great-grandfather, King James I of Scotland was born. Again I knelt, this time at the foot of my great-grandfather's tomb. It is a beautiful tomb made of red marble background, inlaid with his image in shining gold. There is a little plaque there, requesting... 'please do not touch'. I did so much more than touch. Just as it was at Melrose, every shroud between us vanished, and there we were, the two of us; he and I... seeming to regard each other in this space without walls, without boundaries or confines or laws of time and place. It was surreal, it was breathtaking and inexplicable.

Mr. Black and I visited many places in Edinburgh, including The Elephant House where JK Rowling began Harry Potter's life, and the Balmoral Hotel where she ended the tale. We had a fantastic time dancing at the coolest club I've ever been in, Frankenstein's, next door to The Elephant House. We were dumbfounded that we could not seem to find a Scottish restaurant for dinner anywhere in the country! They are big on foreign food; we had Chinese two nights, Mexican one night, Indian one night, and a delicious version of chic American one night. We filled up on the full Scottish breakfast every morning though, so it kind of worked out.

We spent one night at our new favorite bed & breakfast, just up the coast in Stonehaven, because I wanted to sleep by the sea. We were about 10 feet from the sand and waves, I couldn't have been closer unless I'd been in a boat. This was a perfect place to stay, our hosts there were absolutely delightful and so sweet that we didn't want to leave at all. We loved the little seaside town, with its cobblestone streets and old stone buildings. The ocean mist on our skin and the salt of the sea on our lips was delicious. We stood on our patio in the dark of night with a blanket wrapped around us for warmth against the storm that was tossing the sea into a tempest, and watched the swelling waves crash into the rocks and shore for a long while. I spoke Edgar Allen Poe's poem, Annabel Lee, and I'd have stayed the entire night out in the misty fog, hypnotized by the pulsating tide, if Mr. Black hadn't gently urged me back into our room.

When our plane lifted off from Edinburgh airport and flew over the lands end where the Atlantic Ocean washes its shores, I wept. Mr. Black and I both wanted nothing more than to stay there in that lovely country filled with the very kindest souls, daffodils as far as the eye could see, cool misty air, old castles and ages upon ages of history... but reality insisted that we come back here, where we can dream about that other world when we sleep, and find ourselves back in the arms and heart of that country again.


Remiman said...

It's a pity that some will never find that communication with the past. That washing away of the bonds of time and the emotional exhileration of knowing you are in the presence of that part of you that existed so long ago.
Imagine how your ancester's spirits soared when they witnessed what they had wrought: Their Scarlett. And they know their lives did in fact mean something.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...


You are one of my favorite inspirations. You should just know that.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

Kay said...

My (humble compared to your amazing, royal lineage!) great-great-grandmother came from Peebles! R &I visited there during our big OE in 1977. Like you we both bonded with Scotland and our Scottish blood was s stirred well and truly. We look forward to one day returning.
Thanks for your descriptions - truly beautiful and evocative.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

This was so very lovely and gave me serious goosebumps. I was picturing your great grandfathers watching you through the mists of time, and being happy that they still inhabit the world through you.

You are particularly blessed in that you know who your ancestors were so many generations back, as few of us do. I am grateful to mine for my life, now, but beyond my immediate great-grandparents, know nothing about them.

Molly said...

Like Heart, I'm the one with the goosebumps as I read this!

Suburbia said...

Beautiful, thank you. I hate that we have to leave treasured places.

apprentice said...

should have told me you were coming! And boy did you get around.

I'm glad you like Scotland. It is a wonderful country at heart.

The Passionate Palate said...

Dearest Scarlett, your highness! My goodness, what a tale. I felt transported through time through your words and could feel the connections you made. How important and profound to visit with you history, ancestors, and origins.

I have missed your blog and blogging. (Thanks for urging me to come back sweetie.) I will try to get back in the groove.

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